New secretary-general is still finding his footing at the U.N.

Times Staff Writer

In his first three months as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon has learned the hard way why those who have held the post called it “the world’s most impossible job.”

On his recent trip to the Middle East, he was stonewalled by the Iranian foreign minister, snubbed by the Palestinian finance minister, misaddressed by the prime ministers of Israel and Lebanon, and shaken by a mortar shell’s near-miss in Baghdad. Back home, a mutiny against his first major reform left him similarly shaken and humbled.

Struggling to define himself against the legacy of predecessor Kofi Annan’s star power outside the United Nations and leftover distrust within it, Ban has vowed to be a low-key bridge-builder. His determination to tackle deadlocks and clean house may be just what the U.N. needs. But so far, his cryptic decision-making style at home and his why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along approach abroad has diplomats wondering how effective the new secretary-general will be.

It is a question Ban may well be asking himself. He has been surprised by just how little power the world’s top diplomat actually wields, said an official who works closely with him.


The former South Korean foreign minister is used to issuing orders and having them carried out, which doesn’t happen often at the U.N.

“His intentions are good. He is trying to make the Secretariat work more effectively,” Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya said. “But personally, I feel that he’s a newcomer, and he does not understand the culture and the environment in this house. You have to identify who are the stakeholders and how to test the temperature before jumping in. He hasn’t done that and he has felt the heat.”


Trial by fire

It didn’t take long for his first trial by fire. In January, Ban gathered his Cabinet and said he wanted to restructure the U.N.'s most important department -- peacekeeping -- and downgrade the stagnant disarmament office along with it.

The official in charge of disarmament said he thought Ban’s rationale was unconvincing, and that asking him to implement his own demotion was like asking a turkey to present itself for Christmas dinner.

To the surprise of his inner circle, Ban turned bright red and dressed him down, telling him that if he wasn’t going to be a team player, he should get off the team, officials at the meeting say.

Senior officials, who feared reprisals if quoted by name, described it as a “train wreck” and said talk that Ban would not brook dissent ricocheted all the way to U.N. outposts in Geneva and Vienna.

The disarmament official, Nobuaki Tanaka, left the U.N., but it was only the beginning of Ban’s troubles.

His intention was to shore up the overstretched $5-billion peacekeeping department for a massive expansion expected this year by separating the operations side from the supply arm. Ban announced the realignment, then left on a trip to Africa, assuming the hardest work had been done. He came back to find the U.N. in an uproar.

The head of the peacekeeping department, who had been only briefly consulted before the announcement and did not think it was a good idea, quietly offered his resignation, which Ban rejected. Diplomats from the countries that supply most of the U.N.'s peacekeeping troops fretted that the change would endanger soldiers in the field. The leaders of groups of developing nations suspected that the United States was behind the plan to downgrade disarmament, and dug in their heels.

A key Security Council ambassador went to see the secretary-general for a session of what he called “tough love.”

After that, Ban started from scratch, and held hours of consultations with those who had a stake in the change. In some cases, it was “kissing the rings” of leaders of blocs who could make or break his support, an advisor said. In others, it was genuine consultation about how to make the reforms more efficient.

“I admit, we got that one backwards,” a senior advisor said. “We should have consulted more first, and then announced the decision.”

Six weeks after formally announcing the change, the peacekeeping proposal had been streamlined with the help of peacekeeping officials, and Ban had abandoned the idea of demoting the disarmament department, merely changing the title of the top post and the department.

Finally in mid-March, the 192-member General Assembly adopted the proposal with applause.

Ban was surprised and touched, said a close aide.

“It was very unusual for the GA. I think the member states must have done it because they also share our feeling that has not been easy,” he said.

Perhaps Ban’s greatest test will be to straddle the positions of secretary and general: He is at once the servant of the Security Council and General Assembly, yet also their leader.

Ban inherited the distrust of developing countries that are in the majority in the General Assembly and suspect that the secretary-general is trying to wrest their power from them. Many presume he gets marching orders from the United States, an impression he has bolstered by quoting former U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton in staff meetings.

“The conspiracy theorists out there are convinced this is an American agenda and that this is a secretary-general who is essentially responding to American demands,” said Bolton’s successor, Alejandro D. Wolff.

The wariness has been mutual. Ban arrived as an outsider who didn’t know whom to turn to, and has yet to complete his senior-level appointments.

“He came here with a besieged mentality, and felt like he was surrounded by enemies,” said one of Ban’s former Cabinet officials, who asked not to be named. “He didn’t know who to trust. He naturally tends to rely on the people he brought with him, but he needs to listen to people who know the system.”

Ban depends heavily on his close aide, Assistant Secretary-General Kim Won-soo, an official who came with him from the South Korean Foreign Ministry. Kim has become known as the man behind the curtain, the one who guides Ban’s decisions.

In the secretary-general’s waiting room, a senior U.N. envoy recalls asking a departing visitor whether she had seen Ban. “No, I met Kim,” was the reply. “Oh, then you did meet the SG,” he said.


Success as a ‘harmonizer’

Ban has been most successful so far as the self-described “harmonizer” who transcends national interests, urging Israelis and Palestinians to find a way to peace, calling for “early resolution” with Iran over the captured British sailors and marines, or warning about global warming. On his Middle East trip, he tried to warm up leaders who had long given the U.N. a cold shoulder.

He has taken a personal interest in Darfur, an issue that has confounded world leaders for four years.

When he met Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in January, the secretary-general said he looked him in the eye and told him it was unacceptable for the violence to continue in Darfur and that he must live up to his agreement to allow peacekeepers into the western region.

“I made this case as hard as I could. He made his personal commitment to me that he will implement this agreement,” Ban said.

A few weeks later, Bashir wrote a letter to Ban gutting his previous commitments to accept the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force.

But Ban kept at it, and Bashir told him late last month at a meeting in Saudi Arabia that he would accept as many as 20,000 African Union troops, though not under U.N. command.

“I think we broke the stalemate,” Ban said, though it is still a step back from Bashir’s original agreement.

South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, a voice for developing nations, said he was discouraged by Ban’s “decide first, consult afterward” beginning, but hoped that the U.N. chief was finding his footing.

“I warned him that these issues are very, very touchy, but I think he thought he could convince everyone,” Kumalo said.

“The early steps are the hardest, and when you stumble here it is very hard to stand up again.”